Everything I Know I Learned from Publishers Weekly

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I settled in for a close read of Publishers Weekly, the trade journal of the publishing industry. I intend to do that every week but generally only manage to fulfill the goal once per month or so. As one would expect from any magazine, some issues are brimming with content I find meaningful, other weeks…meh.

My recent binge reading yielded a number of insights,and it occurred to me to share them with you. So let’s thumb through the magazine.

This particular week (May 15) I received the usual issue plus a separate issue. A special preview issue for BookExpo–the general market book convention–which took place May 31-June 4 was included. Most of what I learned came from the preview edition.

Lesson #1: I don’t know as much as I think I do.

Lesson #1 became apparent to me when I reached page 3. A full-page ad from Hachette announced the release of Gretchen Carlson’s Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.

My response? To wonder who Gretchen Carlson was.

Oh, wait. The ad’s headline blared the answer at me: “One of TIME’S 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Maybe I need to be better informed, I mumbled aloud as I made a note to myself to read more widely and avidly.

Lesson #2: Huge book conventions can be relevant.

A few years ago, the common wisdom held that massive book conventions were a throwback to a different era. In that era, the publishing industry needed to convene to generate momentum for new books and to give retailers an opportunity to place orders. But in the 21st century, those transactions could take place using electronics.

Yet each year for the last four years or so, BookExpo adds new twists to help to insure it stays relevant. For 2017, planners decided to carefully segment the activities of each day so attendees could focus on that day’s purpose. One day concentrated on bringing publishing professionals together to learn from each other and to gain insights on new ways to reach readers. The days the exhibit floor was open enabled attendees to discover new releases without leaving the floor for workshops or panels.

Lesson #3: When a new venture works, don’t be afraid to expand it.

One of the most successful changes to BookExpo over the past four year is BookCon, a segment of the convention devoted solely to bringing authors and readers together. This event occurs on the tail of BookExpo, once again clearly segmenting it from other activities.

The doors to the convention center open to avid readers who meet authors–many times in small, ticketed groups, hear them speak, and buy the authors’ books to obtain autographs. Each year BookCon is like a feeding frenzy of fans.

The event planners know from past years that the majority of those who attend are millennial women, and the publishers bring in authors known to appeal to this demographic. But this year the idea was to expand from that base to include fun events for families with young children,including time with the author of Captain Underpants. The projections are that a record number of fans will turn out–20,000 of them, as a matter of fact.

Lesson #4: Don’t forget that being playful and imaginative pay dividends.

On page 8 of PW, the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis is featured. I’ve visited Wild Rumpus, a crazy, playful spot for any booklover. Three cats and a chicken amble about (or lounge on books). A variety of birds and even a tarantula dwell inside enclosures. The basement is a haunted house. It seems every inch of the place is filled with books that lure you to pick them up. The co-founder of Wild Rumpus introduced the animals and other playful notes into the store from the beginning. “If I was going to work that hard [as everyone told her she would have to to succeed], I wanted some animals around.”

Lesson #5: I don’t know as much as I think I do.

On page 36, I read more details about BookCon. To appeal to those millennial women who make up the majority of attendees, many YouTube stars made appearances. Then I read this: “A big part of the spectacle is a deep bench of talent from YouTube and its lesser-known subset, BookTube, a community of rabid booklovers who record themselves fervently effusing about books, that has soared in popularity over the past few years.”

Wait. BookTube? I know nothing.

Lesson #6: Don’t forget what it takes for a project to succeed.

On page 86, I read an article by the author of a book I already knew was releasing. I see it as having the potential to succeed like Hidden Figures did recently. Entitled The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, this nonfiction book explores the lives of women who worked in WWI-era factories painting watch dials with luminous radium to make them glow.

Many years ago, probably 15, a writer submitted a proposal to me for a book about these women. But the proposal lacked depth. If I remember correctly, the writer’s intention was to tell what happened to her mother, who was one of dial painters. Even though I had never heard of these women at the time, I sensed immediately that this was a big and fascinating story. But the writer didn’t explain the process the women used to paint the dials, nor the specifics of the medical aftermath for them.

Here’s a part of what the author of The Radium Girls explained, which the proposal writer failed to: “Women working in these factories were told to ‘lip-point’ their brushes–dipping them into the radium solution, then putting the brushes in their mouths to create a fine tip–as they painted the dials, causing them to actually ingest the dangerous chemical.” Yeah, that’s the kind of detail the proposal lacked. As a result, I didn’t represent that project, and it took this long before someone else snatched up the idea.

Having a great concept isn’t enough; the writer needs to deliver the goods.

What did you learn from this quick trip through the Publishers Weekly issue?

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Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

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